Sunday, October 07, 2018

Between Principle & Practice

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

My dear friends, do you know the difference between principle and practice? I was led to ponder this question a few nights ago, when I happened to watch a documentary on Channel NewsAsia, entitled China On Film. The programme showed some old film footage of China in the late 1920s, which was, as you know, a very tumultuous time. A time of civil war and conflict. The Nationalists were fighting the regional warlords and the Communists. The Japanese were threatening to invade. And caught in the middle of the resulting violence and bloodshed were the poor defenceless Chinese people.

The film clips showed masses of Chinese refugees fleeing their homes. Where did they go? One ironic source of safety was actually the foreign settlements. Which were under international protection, and closed to Chinese troops. One commentator pointed out that although, in principle, almost all Chinese deeply resented the foreign occupation of Chinese soil, in practice, they had to flee into foreign-controlled areas to save their lives. In principle, resentment. In practice, refuge.

Sisters and brothers, what do you think of this contradiction between principle and practice? If you were a Chinese refugee, wouldn’t you do the same? I know I would. And if you were in charge of a foreign settlement at that time, wouldn’t you do your best to save lives? Or would you be so hardhearted as to insist that people stick to their principle… and die?

I’m not sure, sisters and brothers, but it seems to me that, in order to live a truly human life, we often have to strike a delicate balance between both principle and practice. We can’t have one without the other. Which is also what we find in our Mass readings today. At first glance, the readings seem to involve nothing more than an argument over principle. The question is whether or not a man may divorce his wife. The Pharisees assume that the answer must be yes. But Jesus disagrees. For him, any person who divorces a spouse and marries another is guilty of adultery against that spouse.

For us Catholics, the general principle is clear, isn’t it? Marriage is for life. Divorce is prohibited on pain of sin. We all know this. But does this mean that all that’s left for us is simply to keep the principle, and to enforce it as best we can? And yet, the readings actually go beyond a mere argument over principle. Consider, for example, how Jesus responds to the Pharisees’ challenge. He doesn’t just propose to them a contrary principle. Instead he focuses their attention on what has been God’s practice from the dawn of creation. From the beginning… God made them male and female… and the two become one body… But why did God act in this way?

The first reading explains the origin of the different sexes and of marriage in a very interesting way. In creating the man and the woman, God wasn’t so much following a principle as God was responding, in practice, to a felt need. A need that we all have, don’t we? The need for true and deep and intimate companionship. It is not good that the man should be alone… It is out of a merciful desire to fill this deep need for connection that God helps the man to put his own ego to sleep, in order that the man may donate a part of himself to another. For true companionship cannot result from selfishness. It has to be born of loving self-sacrifice. But the point is that the man can't do this on his own. God has to help him.

Isn’t this why it’s so fitting that our second reading should speak to us of the self-sacrifice of Christ? For just as the first man fell asleep and donated a rib to form the first woman. So too does Jesus fall into the sleep of death on the cross, and pour out every last drop of his blood to form the church. To form you and me. And to take us to himself in true companionship and friendship. As the reading tells us, by God’s grace he had to experience death for all mankind… For the one who sanctifies, and the ones who are sanctified, are of the same stock; that is why he openly calls them brothers… 

Seen from this perspective, my dear friends, our readings are really less about explaining and enforcing a burdensome principle than they are about celebrating God’s practice of mercy. God’s ongoing desire to satisfy our deep need for connection and companionship. This is what God has been doing, right from the beginning of Creation to the climax of our redemption in Christ. And isn’t this also what we celebrate here at this Mass? The same kind of practice of mercy that we are all expected to engage in after we leave this church?

My dear friends, to live a truly human life, a truly Christian life, it is not enough for us to cling stubbornly to a certain set of principles. Important though these principles may be. In today’s gospel, it is the Pharisees who do that. Which leads Jesus to call them unteachable. A word that is better translated as hardhearted. In contrast, it is Jesus who remains ever mindful of God’s practice of mercy. Even as he models for us the great principle of love of God and of neigbour. It is Jesus who is himself the great expression of the practice of mercy. Jesus, who comes to call not the righteous, but sinners (Mt 9:13).

My dear friends, it’s difficult to deny that, in many ways, we live in a time that’s no less tumultuous than China in the 1920s. Many people are in flight, if not physically, then surely spiritually. Anxiously searching for a place of safety and rest. Desperately looking to establish meaningful connections. And precisely at a chaotic time like this, when the gap between principle and practice often seems to be at its widest, the temptation is great for those of us who feel like we have all the answers to cling stubbornly to a certain set of principles. Whatever these may be. And to seek to impose them on others. For this is what often seems to offer us the best form of security and safety.

And yet we Christians are called to do more. To act differently, For we follow a crucified and risen Lord, who came to seek out and to save the lost. We believe in a loving and merciful God, who continually flings open the doors of his Kingdom, so that pitiful refugees might enter, to enjoy true hospitality and safety and security. And to learn to share the same with others who are in need.

Sisters and brothers, what do we have to do, you and I, to continue striking that delicate but much needed balance between principle and practice today?

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